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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year
New Distance Learning Classrooms Open

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 04 - September 18, 1997

Bill Price has 33 students in his graduate course Foundations of Vocational and Technical Education. Eighteen of them are in Blacksburg, 15 are in Northern Virginia. When the class met for the first time, August 25, they may have been 300 miles apart, but they were all in the same "classroom," thanks to Virginia Tech's new distance-education capabilities.

Two new distance-learning classrooms opened this fall, one in War Memorial Gym in the College of Human Resources and Education, the other in Major Williams in the College of Arts and Sciences. A third, in Cowgill Hall in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, is scheduled to open in October.

Through two-way videoconferencing, the new classrooms make it possible for two geographically separated groups to see each other, talk, interact, and view the same documents, slides, or computer programs--all in real time. Some are even equipped with an infrared device which, when worn by a lecturer, allows the camera to follow him around the room. With the addition of the three new distance-learning classrooms, Tech now has seven classrooms equipped for distance education.

Price, a faculty member in the College of Human Resources and Education, said he was glad to get a chance to reach students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend Virginia Tech. "It shows a commitment to students who are not in Blacksburg. It lets them know that they are important to the university, and that when they take a Virginia Tech course, they won't just be looking at a monitor."

Susan Asselin, a fellow CHRE faculty member, had been using an earlier version of two-way videoconferencing, one that had a slight time delay in transmission. She was on hand as a facilitator when Price and his class tried out the new equipment. "At first, the students were a little shy--they didn't like seeing themselves on the monitor. But they really warmed up to the idea and interacted well. I think they are excited to be a part of this new technology."

On Wednesday, Sept. 24 from 3 to 5 p.m., the new distance-learning facilities, room 234 War Memorial Gym and room 327 Major Williams, will be open to the university community. The rooms will be connected via two-way video and audio to demonstrate their interactive instructional capabilities. In addition, Educational Technologies will continue its fall workshop series with "Supporting the Distance Learner" on Friday, Nov. 7 from 10 a.m. to noon, and "Enhancing Interaction in a Two-way Video Learning Environment" on Friday, Nov. 14 from 10 a.m. to noon. Contact JoAnn Michaels at 1-5879 or jmichael@vt.edu to register. Faculty members can arrange training sessions on how to use the new technology by contacting Mark Harden at 1-5930 or Mark.Harden@vt.edu.

Distance learning is not a new concept at Virginia Tech. Since 1983, Tech has televised graduate engineering courses from the Blacksburg campus to various classroom locations in industry, at government installations, and in other academic facilities, using one-way video transmission and a two-way telephone audio hook-up. MBA classes were offered via satellite beginning in 1989. But satellite-delivered distance instruction has inherent limitations. It is increasingly expensive, availability of transponder time is scarce, and its synchronous nature limited users to certain times and places.

All that changed with the advent of Net.Work.Virginia, the state's new broadband digital network. The network's asynchronous-transfer-mode (ATM) protocol has very high capacity, and delivers quality interactive voice, data, and video services. A single connection to Net.Work.Virginia can be used to support different types of activities, such as two-way videoconferencing, asynchronous Internet-based instruction, and interactive multimedia applications, which means faculty members can customize their courses to meet the needs of students. Network services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And, with more than 120 connected sites throughout Virginia, Tech now has access to a wide variety of public schools, government offices, Cooperative Extension Centers, community colleges, and other universities.

A key element to the design and planning of the classrooms was faculty input, according to Barbara Lockee, program developer for distance learning with the university's Information Systems. With Media Services, Video Broadcast Services, Instructional Technology faculty members from CHRE, and the university architect, Lockee conducted a needs assessment, asking faculty members at an open forum what factors needed consideration and how they would use the classroom.

Discussion continued on a listserv, created to communicate faculty needs and concerns to the planning team, and to provide project updates. "Faculty members made it clear they wanted flexibility, to be able to accommodate a wide range of instructional methods and models," Lockee said. "Involvement of the faculty in the design process was crucial to determine factors such as spatial needs, movement and flexibility, and environmental atmosphere. Failure to involve the end-users can result in the creation of a space which cannot service the needs of those who use it."

The new distance-learning classrooms support the strategic goals of the university, as presented to the Tech Board of Visitors at the beginning of the semester. Among the six strategic directions the university will focus on during the next five years are "enhancing the university's status as one of the leading innovators in the application of advanced communications and information technologies, and creating multifaceted, supportive learning environments." The Office of the Provost provided funding for the new distance-learning classrooms, while the colleges which house the new facilities provided space.